Sawney Bean

Sometimes Wikipedia is a real buzzkill.

When we were last in Edinburgh, I heard the legend of Sawney Bean for the first time.  According to the legend, some time during the reign of James I, there lived in East Lothian a man named Sawney Bean.  Born to honest people, Sawney Bean was an idle sot, and when he met a likewise evil woman, they ran away together and took up residence in a cave on the sea in Galloway.  There they set to breeding.

Eventually, they produced a large family (Wikipedia puts it at “eight sons, six daughters, eighteen grandsons and fourteen granddaughters,” an impressive and creepy brood when you consider it was just the two of them).  And to feed this growing family, the committedly unemployed Mr. and Mrs. Bean would kidnap, murder, and eat local travellers.  

It’s not known exactly how many people met this fate – estimates range from several hundreds to over a thousand.  Whatever the number, it seems to have taken the local authorities a surprisingly long time to figure out what was going on, and to organize effective resistance.  Several innocents, innkeepers in particular, came under suspicion and were executed for the Bean Family’s crimes; yet the disappearances continued, and body parts kept washing up around the caves in Galloway.

One night, the Bean crew attacked a man and his wife on their way back from a fair on horseback.  The woman was dragged to the ground and ripped to shreds, but before they could kill the man, they were interrupted by a crowd of fair-goers, who chased off the Beans and reported their existence to the magistrate.  News then reached the King, who organized a search party over 400 strong.

When this party located the Beans’ cave, they found human limbs, from men, women, and children, hanging from hooks to dry.  Human bones were everywhere.  The Bean family was taken in its entirety into custody and transported to Leith.

It was decided that the Beans did not require due process, and so they were executed right away.  The men were castrated, their hands and feet were cut off, and they were left to bleed to death.  The women were forced to watch, and were then burned alive.

The legend of Sawney Bean is close to the heart of the Edinburgh tourist industry, and they make a very good show of it around town.  However, when I looked it up on Wikipedia, I was archly informed that “historians tend to believe that Sawney Bean never existed, or that his story has been greatly exaggerated”.  Well, fine.  That’s one less monster to believe in.


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